Monday, 3 February 2014

Musings: Part one

The last post I did started out by me writing down various ideas I had, then I realised that I'd written more questions than Ideas and turned it into a post rather than a list. This is a list of ideas, not necessarily entirely coherent ones, I have and will try to turn into post's at some point.

I predict that neo-reactionary political and social ideas will increase over the next century as a form of historical delusion 

By reactionary I don't mean things like fascism, military dictatorships, the return of the gender roles from the 20th century or people becoming more religious. I mean ideas that (at least superficially) go against the Enlightenment (secularism, rationality etc) and its twin Romanticism (nationalism, will of the people etc) and at least want to superficially reverse those movements. So returning to monarchy, aristocracy, the divine right of kings, the unity of church and state and other ideas of that vein or adaptations of these.Various modern non-western ideas also count; such as sharia law, Caliphates (Islamic state lead by a combined political and religious head), Confucianism, a caste system (like India's), Venetian democracy, aristocratic republics, the old Chinese state system/Imperial hegemony are also included.

Progress has happened, all three types as described by the Archdruid have occurred. Morale progress; here tracked by murder and war death rates (note I am not in any way defining morality beyond some basics), an actual figure for medieval England is 10% of the population was murdered (30% for nobles) while the highest contemporary country on wikipedia is less than a percent (El Salvador in 1995), we don't kill nearly as many people in wars and fight barely any in comparison to almost any period of history (e.g peace on the barbarian frontiers of Rome was like an ultra violent version of the Israeli-Gaza border, evidence for this includes that only large farmsteads existed in border areas as small farms could not defend themselves) and most governments refrain from large-scale censorship, strict controls on consumption or mass murder (as in 5-10% of the population, the Albigensian Crusade killed close to 1 in 12 Frenchmen and significant numbers of people were killed in the suppression of the numerous revolts), though as recent events in the middle east have shown this is much more true of the west than the rest. Technical and economic progress are fairly obvious, the global economy is far larger than it was a few hundred years ago while there isn't any previous society that even equals our scientific/technical ability without deliberately rigging the contest. There is no point in pretending that progress didn't happen, all that does is make the future more confusing and obscure important trends.
Social progress has occurred, not necessarily in the last few decades but over centuries certainly, and as a consequence our current social systems are a lot better than previous ones; admittedly quite a few didn't exist in previous societies (I've never heard of a historical universal health care). You can argue about the why, how or desirability of these systems, which include large scale social welfare, a fully professional military with advanced logistics (nicer on civilian populations), the separation of civilian, military and religious leadership etc, but that is a historical process which happened. Compound that with other changes, like how firearms affect power relations, radios communication, the metallurgical improvements that happened before and during the Industrial revolution that had numerous consequences like allowing lots of rails for trains and previous societies are more or less unsuited for current conditions and likely future ones. Radio allows a far greater level of centralisation for no extra cost and if some form of quick VIP transport remains (aircraft or limited motor vehicles) then this affect is compounded even more, that's only one example.

A nice measure of an improved political/social systems; violent dynastic struggles and civil wars over rulers no longer exist. Given that Poland at one point had legalized civil war (one of the reasons Poland never did that well), and that these lead to large ultimately purposeless wars, this is a nice improvement. On a larger scale (war and international relations), we no longer routinely wipe out entire cities in nasty ways during war, war is incredibly rare (relatively speaking, world peace has been achieved) and the death tolls are puny in absolute numbers (50,000 a year is nothing), impressive considering the massive increase in population. An example of how things have changed; I read that about 50% of the violence in Iraq is in Baghdad, the majority of previous societies would have solved that by the simple process of annihilating the city and if that didn't work to quell Iraq, destroy some more cities. The war nerd complains that this is an era of squeamishness (note he really overstates his case and the killing of civilians), the difference between the Romans and the First world is that the Romans were ruthless and quite able to kill lots of people but didn't have that much more force than the barbarians while it would be almost trivial for the First world to annihilate the rest because of the massive force difference, but we don't like killing civilians. Israel can simply walk in and purge the Gaza strip (we're talking up to million dead), it would solve the Hamas problem but they don't.

One of the changes in recent history, one of those resilient and old changes, is that we can kill lots of people very easily. To quote this article, "Ethics, not truth, may be the first casualty of war in an age of limits." It is quite possible that in the near future the ability to kill lots of people will again meet people who are perfectly fine with using those abilities. You could have mass immigration from Africa to Europe, but if the Europeans decide to shoot back it's not really going to work. 10 million poor starving people who can't carry a lot of equipment (otherwise there not mobile) isn't going to exactly be a hard target. Of course theirs always mobility blockers (minefields) to aid in starvation or dehydration along with a highly successful Roman strategy that severly weakened warrior hordes but could (because they're slower and require more food) easily stop more civilian groups. All that is required is a return to an older mindset, an older morality and system. But that's mostly irrelavent, the groups that migrated after Romes fall weren't civilians, but hordes of between 10-100,000 warriors who normally adopted the local customs (like Christianity) and integrated themselves into the existing political structure. Mass migration on the scale of millions of civilians that displace the locals has be from Europe to elsewhere, because  the Europeans were vastly superior in technological terms.

Also democracies aren't more corrupt than aristocratic systems, it's just that corruption has a different definition now. The thinking goes that since the leaders of a democracy aren't automatically rich, it's fairly easy for the rich to corrupt them; but this ignores how much effort and laws favor the rich in older systems. Often a benefit of being a noble was not paying taxes, that's not a small matter considering that they own most of the wealth and land, and influential positions are often reserved for nobles only, which limits the possibilities for poorer people, and its especially bad as throughout most of history noble titles could be bought. Prussia went to huge lengths to preserve aristocratic land ownership such as spending fortunes, setting up noble only banks, rewriting laws, all for a single class of people, their version of the 1%; that is corruption of the system by the rich. By our standards this is an incredible level of corruption and the difference is that we see those properties as corrupt while in the societies that had them, that was an expected and reasonable situation. The reason we consider corruption common in democracies isn't because that's the situation in relation to other systems, but because we have expanded the definition of corruption.

 The cause of the rise in neo-reactionary thought is not going to be an honest assessment that older societies are better than current ones, but the same mental drive as displayed in the fox and the grapes. As decline happens, a likely response is to simply decry everything after the renaissance and beyond as evil and reject everything modern no matter its merit. There are aspects our the current civilisation that need to be ditched, but quite a lot doesn't. Like the systems that make our politicians do more than the bare minimum to stop revolts (and in a non-destructive ways),  prevent major wars which don't kill millions of civilians and create a really low murder/crime rate. Added into this will also be groups trying to 'restore' their old privileges or push their own agendas

Older societies where by and large functioning and healthy, but by current standards they all had drastic faults and flaw, especially when you look at the lives of peasants rather than simply the lives of the urban or aristocratic. They had parts that we like, but also parts that we hate and find abhorrent. Rome slaughtered and enslaved millions but provided quality infrastructure and enforced peace, the Celts were socially progressive in various areas (ex. divorce laws) but were also barbarians who would raid and sack other lands. There is no utopia in the past, nor the future.

Especially considering that past societies habits of every now and then creating quite impressive kill-counts, often not of foreigners but their own people, is quite likely to return if we adopt neo-reactionary ideas.

If people decide to revive tradition, the actual tradition is irrelevant in the face of what they think the tradition was.

As it stands, it's unlikely that an actual traditional system is going to be proposed, the legitimacy of tradition and a vague framework is more likely. This is because the idea of a political/social system is separate, but linked, from the actual system; viking mythology is similar, most of our ideas of pagan viking mythology comes from christian monk's writing centuries after the actual mythology disappeared. All the unspoken intricacies, basic ideas, assumptions and so on by and large don't exist anymore and can't be easily be brought back. Here's a minor example of different cultural assumptions; Captain Cook at one point kidnapped some islanders to learn the local sewing techniques, problem was they were male islanders and thus didn't know how to sew since to them it was women's work, while Cook went of his assumptions that sewing was more often masculine (sailors invented quite a lot of sewing).

Older societies are alien to us; they had different values, assumptions, ideas and lived in a very different world. In that light, importing even parts of older societies without drastic modifications doesn't make a lot of sense. Besides, quite a lot of the reactionary thought is going to be Utopian to some degree, which means that the negative sides of older societies are going to be downplayed; like the regular peasant revolts, regular standard revolts, rampant censorship (Elizabeth didn't censor newspapers, because she simply banned them), the power struggles and by our standards massive instability. The sword of Damocles is a good description of a king's position, always in danger of someone who wants power going about it in the traditional manner of kings, kill the incumbent and sit on his throne. And if the society was considerable unlucky, something like the An Lushan rebellion would occur (here's the death toll), through normally events like that aren't quite so bad.

And socially, most older societies (and current but foreign ones) are alien and have completely different values to us. Here's wikipedia's page on pederasty in ancient Greece, something that seems completely monstrous to us but was fine back then, they were also by our standards gay and had various social customs surrounding it (they cared if they were effeminate or manly), someone won a court case by proving that a co-plaintiff was a boy prostitute and therefore lost his citizenship. One justification for homosexuality was driven by extreme misogyny, if women are inferior to men, then a relationship with a women is inferior than that with a man. The vikings were similar, there's a saga where the hero kidnaps a pretty french couple to live with him on one of his raids, for sex basically (both the male and female), and later goes off and kills a dragon somewhere. The commonality was the association of the being in the penetrative role as masculine and the other as feminine, to be considered gay you had to be penetrated, the other guy was considered heterosexual. Slavery also varied across different cultures, a slave in Rome wasn't the same as a black one in the US and a black slave in Africa was different from one in the US while slavery in Russia slaves were better off than serfs until slavery was banned.  

Humans are mentally quite mutable, different societies can have completely different moral behaviours, ideas and such. An example of this is culture-bound syndromes, an interesting one is puppy pregnancy syndrome in which a man believes after being bitten by a dog he is now pregnant and will give birth to puppies and thus die. Also, warrior cultures are similarly alien and tend to have very different idea of manliness to what we have, here's a comic with some examples, the Spartans would also do each others hair before battle so they'd look nice after they died (warrior cultures share quite a few traits, vanity is one of them). Importing a traditional system without also changing people to be like traditional people is more or less pointless, it simply won't work.

The examples above are just snapshots of some differences, but most aspects of previous civilisations are similar in that they are different from ours. In Rome the priests and politicians were the same people (both were also elected), the Indian society that created the caste system is a very different one to today's India, in France there's was a Bishop who inherited a sword and armour with his position, quite a few monks and priests fought in medieval wars (they show up as casualties in battle), in eastern Europe there exists the last remnants of a third gender tradition. When either Jaws or Star wars (can't remember) was being shown in Japan, the producers thought they hated the movie because the audience was quite (in America that's not a good sign) but a local explained that it was a sign of respect and the audience liked the film. In Afghanistan there was an ambush of US troops and the local kids joined in, because they were bored and nothing much happens in Afghanistan villages that's exciting (why else would you have quail fights), here's an article on how westernisation, boredom and other things is affecting Somalia. If compared to other theoretical minds (actual aliens or AIs), humans have virtually no variation (e.g. we all feel joy, anger and pleasure), but we do have a large range of variables while our brains at least partly change according to the outside world.

Physical laws are invariant and inviolable; e.g. the laws of thermodynamics are always operating on everything and are never violated. Human ideas; laws, customs, thoughts, ideologies, practise, social constructs etc are not like that in any sense. One of the reasons current democracy works far better than previous incarnations is that it isn't the same as what the Greeks, Romans, Veniceans or anyone else had, which also means that the historical critiques of democracy (such as those of Thucydides) are discussing a different idea and system (some differences are minor, others significant). Physical laws are invariant and inviolable; e.g. the laws of thermodynamics are always operating on everything and are never violated. Human ideas; laws, customs, thoughts, ideologies, practise, social constructs etc are not like that in any sense. One of the reasons current democracy works far better than previous incarnations is that it isn't the same as what the Greeks, Romans, Veniceans or anyone else had, which also means that the historical critiques of democracy (such as those of Thucydides) are discussing a different idea and system (some differences are minor, others significant). Ethnicity and culture are exactly the same, at one point in time Italians weren't considered white, Italian immigrants weren't considered Australian and the idea of a (single) Italian ethnicity is also made up, my Grandmother wouldn't visit a specific supermarket because it had too much southern Italian goods, she was from the north. And in the Roman days there were lots of different ethnic groups (tribes) in Italy; Latin, Etruscan, Celts in the north, Samnites, Romans and a few others. England is the exact same, pretty much everywhere used to be incredibly diverse.

Food is another good marker. I live near Box hill, a fairly Asian area (mostly Chinese/Hong Kong or Korean) and a new fast food shop opened up that sells Korean specialities. Those specialities include twisted potato (quite nice) and a small container of fried chicken in a cup of coke-cola (the chicken is not covered in coke-cola). There's also a Hong Kong restaurant there which does a great steak with chips, while you can get any dish (Asian or not) with spaghetti. My Mom mentioned that when she was at a Chinese cooking class, the teacher told everyone not to use Chinese noodles because they were crap but instead use Spaghetti because it was better.

I'm using food here as a proxy, I could talk about other things that signify the same. I've meet Asian bogans for example, how common it is to see half Asian half White couples or the fact that I have a friend that if you speak to him over the internet he sounds like a big white bogan, but is actually a short guy who's ethnically Hong kongese. There is no perfect enforcer of human ideas and cultures, they generally aren't enforced at all. Most values have no objective counterpart in the world, ethnicity, democracy, justice, truth and so on do not exist outside human minds, and human minds are highly imperfect, flawed and filled with biases. 

It is actual impossible to import ancient cultural forms as they were, because the people who practised them and all their unspoken ideas/norms no longer exist.

Nukes are in many ways the best weapon, because you don't actually have to use them.

Physically using a nuke to create an explosion for purposes other than testing means that the relevant country has completely and utterly failed to use them properly (outside of some rare circumstances, such as those at the end of and just after WWII). In fact one way to improve a nuke is to not actually build one but convince everyone that you have, since that gets you an incredibly high return for minimal resource inputs. Of course there's the risk of being found out involved, but if you can't build a nuke, faking it is an (albiet highly risky) option.

Nukes operate entirely as diplomatic tools, threats that massively limit and constrain your opponents options (and your own in a lesser way). America is not going to be invaded by another country as long as it has nukes while India and Pakistan only bluster at each other with at most small black ops against each other (at least outside of Kashmir) because both sides nukes constrains the others. China and Japan (which has breakout capability) are exactly the same and Mad dictators don't change the equations. Mao (a mad dictator if there ever was one) when he didn't have nuclear weapons kept trying to get the Soviets to use them and allow Communism to rise from the ashes, but as soon as China got nukes that behaviour disappeared completely. The reason the cold war didn't have an all out war between the USSR and USA wasn't because of some complicated plot or fear of industrial war, but because a war would have involved nukes completely destroying both societies. Some of the population would have survived, but the government is gone and the instigators on both sides lose as nothing would have remained of either communism or western liberal democracy (which means the elites in charge are likely dead).

Anger can work in a similar fashion, though not nearly as well. The example I remember is a monkey gathering fruit. If it takes an hour to gather one fruit and you are a standard rational utility maximiser, then all I have to do is steal your fruit and hide it for 90 minutes. Since it will take less time to simply gather a new fruit than find it, that's what a rational utility maximiser does. But that equation changes if you are a being which gets angry and instead of doing the standard maximum utility choice decide to hunt me down and start stabbing. Something similar is at work in the ultimatum game, if your a utility maximiser and I know I won't be playing you again, I can simply offer 99-1 because your decision is either $1 or nothing. With a human, that doesn't work so well. On a large scale this makes human behaviour more rational than it can seem at first, but this isn't an entirely individual phenomenon. 

To work, the threat has to be believable, simply stating that "I will get angry and hunt you down if you steal my fruit" won't work if I have reason to believe it's just empty bluster. Nuclear tests are proof that a nation has a nuclear bomb, while anger is demonstrated often enough for it to be a credible threat. Evolution has a lot of solutions to basic game theory problems, like tit for tat.

And luckily for us nuclear weapons act near perfectly as deterrents while anger doesn't. It's also a large part of how the military in diplomacy works.

People are common failure points, not the methods and systems

 Medical research isn't the most rigorous, here's an article on it (first I found, there are probably better). In Predictably Irrational, the author mentions that one treatment for his full body burn was to special suit, which only made his problem worse as well as several cases of medical treatments being no better than placebo's. Drug research is similar, which honestly is not surprising given the complexity and abundance of biochemical pathways, and the massive amount of money involved doesn't help.

An example of a problem in social psychology, the Milgram experiment's data was horribly misused for, as I understand it, prestige and money. 

Somewhere in this blog is a great anecdote that I can't find about a guest lecturer talking about his experiments. My recollection of it; The guest lecturer is a surgeon who just completed a 1000 patient study to test the efficacy of a new treatment, as he's giving his speech a student asks a question and there's the following exchange;

"Did you use a control"

"You mean having half the patients not receiving the treatment"


(Shouting) "So I should have condemned half of them to die?"

"Which half?"

Here a sense of ethics and the desire to do something rather than nothing is getting in the way of properly testing the procedure. Since you have no idea whether the new technique will work, you need a comparision, which is what a control is, though having the standard treatment at the same time is also a good idea.

In this case it was ethics, as opposed to some baser motivation like money, that got in the way of proper science. A common case of science being misused for various human reasons is in how people assert intuitive notions, such as that violent video games and rape porn increasing cases of violence and rape. Now the reason for this is fairly obvious, our brains have a built in failure mode called confirmation bias that makes people ignore evidence and stick to their side. And the link can seem really obvious and intuitive, plus it fits with various moral systems, but the data doesn't fit.

At worst, violent video games (and movies) do nothing in respect to violence levels, here's study for violent movies and another for violent video games, there was a better example I saw years ago using FBI data that showed a marked decrease in youth violence as video games in general became common but this will have to do. And similar data exists for rape porn as well. Here it's basically politics and prejudiced views that are causing the problems. Note that you could easily reverse the above statements and the same point is made. As a New Scientist article once pointed out, social psychology answers look obvious in hindsight (the specific question was did rural or urban men adopt to WW2 more easily than the other, answer urban) and any stance can often be justified. 

As an aside, the obvious consequence of the above facts is that as peak oil lowers the availability of both porn and video games, if nothing is done to replace them then their societal benefits will disappear. I can think of a few possibilities; but frankly I don't know enough and the effects will be a drop of water in comparison to everything else. It's just one of those little things.

In none of these cases is the abstract idea of the scientific method at fault, but the humans who implement it and their conflicting motivations. Humans are far more commonly failure points than methods and technology. Chernobyl is as good example of that as needed, thought to be fair modern nuclear reactors are as close to foolproof as possible. Fukushima wasn't modern and the Japanese were repeatedly warned to update it, which again points to humans and conflicting motivations (money + political influence) as the failure point. To be clear, while I agree that most anti-nuclear proponents dramatically hype (to ridiculous extremes at times) the dangers of nuclear power, I still agree that nuclear power isn't that good an idea but for economic reasons. I could use other examples, but these are fairly clear, but the point is sometimes ignored in ideologies, people are imperfect and there needs to be mechanisms in place to deal with their mistakes.

In practical terms; this is the main reason I completely expect artificial societies (I think they are great idea) to be misused for ideologies in the near future. Basically instead of using any actual lessons from artificial societies, especially if they forget to add where the model breaks from reality, makes assumptions or simplifies things, will instead pimp their own special societal/political model. Especially since anything that large scale is going to be incredibly untrustworthy until far more basic models are commonplace and lessons drawn, like one in this article about corruption. Chances are the initial lessons are already going to be in use, but otherwise the idea seems sound.

It's also where a lot of social ideologies fail, not taking into account that humans are not perfect beings and will cheat, seize power, be corrupt or engage in other standard forms of moral failure. If a social system doesn't take this into account, it's not going to work and will fall prey to human behaviour. And a system doesn't just become good because it's written that it is, actual effort and mechanisms need to be in place to counteract these trends. If you want to create a non-hierarchical society, actual mechanism's need to be in place to stop hierarchies forming and energy needs to be expended as well, simply saying the society is non-hierarchical isn't anywhere near enough. And what also needs to be remembered is that formal and informal hierarchies can form, and the main difference is informal ones don't have as many checks on them.

The fault of communism is that it requires people to be something they aren't, so from the perspective of communism it's humans who failed.  However, since it's a system designed to be implemented in a human society and all plans to use it revolve around human societies, it's the flaw. And common human failings will pop up in any system, here's that concept but talking about cultishness (Every cause wants to be a cult), what matters is what the system does about it and at least mitigates the problems. To quote that article "It is sufficient that the adherents be human", there is no excuse for a social, mechanical, political system to not take at least a cursory look at how people will interact with it. And since its rather unlikely for us to be replaced by other sentients in the near future or begin drastic modifications, we don't have a choice but to accept this.

No comments:

Post a Comment